In the midst of the Crimean crisis, US President Barack Obama hosted Ukraine's new prime minister, Arseniy Yatsenyuk. The meeting, observers say, is a signal that could not be clearer.
His name does not yet come so easy to the US president. "Prime Minister… er," Barack Obama stuttered a few days ago in front of the press, before opting for the simpler: "The prime minister of Ukraine." The president's Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs, Victoria Nuland, had identified Yatsenyuk long before - as her favored candidate to lead Ukraine out of its crisis. "I think the answer is this guy who's got the economic experience, the governing experience," she said a few weeks ago in a recorded telephone call with the US ambassador in Kiev, Geoffrey Pyatt.
The White House reception for Yatsenyuk is meant to show the world that the president has committed himself, says Ian Brzezinski of the Washington think tank Atlantic Council. "I think it's a very important visit because it will communicate US commitment to the independence and sovereignty of the Ukraine, including sovereignty of the Crimea," he told DW.
A generous aid package of both economic and security measures will also underline this commitment, says Brzezinski, who served as Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Europe and NATO Policy from 2001 to 2005, under George Bush. Military aid could encompass a wide spectrum, he explains. "It could range from assistance designed to consolidate, reform and modernize the Ukrainian military. That would be geared toward a longer term vision for Ukraine and its security relationship to the West," he says. "And it could also include more immediate needs such as equipment that would be needed to help reinforce Ukrainian defenses against Russian forces."
That military aid could include anti-tank and air defense weapons, as well as technical support for the Ukrainian intelligence service in order to observe the movements of Russian troops. Brzezinski says he has been impressed with the discipline the Ukrainian army has shown so far, but added that the White House also expects something in return from Yatsenyuk, a former Ukrainian parliamentary president and foreign minister.
"One: a reiteration of Yatsenyuk and his government's, indeed his people's, commitment to be a full part of Europe," said Brzezinski. "Second: Yatsenyuk will hopefully bring to Washington a game plan or a vision of Ukrainian reforms necessary to modernize the economy, to end the corruption that has been endemic in the country - political reforms that ensure democracy and freedom in that country."
Keith Crane, of the RAND think tank, wants to see another guarantee before the meeting in the White House. "Ukraine does need to have elections as promised this spring to elect a new government," he told DW. "I think that makes it easier to point to the Russians that a newly-elected government is completely legitimate in terms of Ukrainian law and the constitution."
But Crane doubts whether the meeting really will be a first step out of the crisis. "It may serve to kind of bring the crisis to a truce-moment," he said. "If you look at Russian policy in Georgia and also the continued existence of Transnistria Moldova, I would argue that the Russian government is quite comfortable with creating this frozen conflict. So, unfortunately, I would be prepared to see Crimea remaining under Russian control for several years, maybe decades."
But he added that it was important that Obama send a clear signal: "I think it's very important to bring about a stabilization package for Ukraine," he said. "I think that US support - financially and in terms of technical assistance and possibly security cooperation - would be helpful, but I think it really needs to be coordinated with the European Union."
Unilateral actions by the US or the EU could be interpreted as signs of weakness by the other side, said Crane. But cooperation within the alliance, on the other hand, would also strengthen Washington's hand - and increase it's responsibilities.